When I run workshops for people who want to rethink their careers, we talk quite a lot about taking stock of your strengths and talents, so you can use them as a basis for your next career move. One of my top ways of finding your strengths is to look for activities that put you in that state called ‘flow’. It’s an almost automatic, effortless, yet highly focused and pleasurable state of consciousness where you are in your element and performing at your peak. If the pursuit of each activity is more important than the recognition or results you get from it, you generate an internal sense of satisfaction and pleasure that is not dependent on external success, sweet though that may also be.
If you’re in flow, it’s a pretty sure bet that you are using one or more strengths.
A guy called Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has done plenty of research on this, and has found that flow generally includes these 9 elements:
1. Having clear goals every step of the way
This is about knowing what needs to be done, being sure like a surgeon how things need to proceed step by step. Or the goal may be to solve a work problem, or to find a way to increase production, or…
2. Having immediate feedback for your actions
The musician knows instantly if they have played the right note – in a flow experience, we know in ourselves how well we are doing..
3. Balancing skills and challenges
In flow our abilities are well matched to the opportunities for action. If the challenge is too far above our current skill level (like being promoted too soon), we become frustrated and often anxious. On the other hand, if the activity is way below our potential (like being stuck in a job way below our training), we become bored.
4. Action and awareness are merged
Awareness is focused on what we are doing, not on what we have planned for the weekend, or the chores we need to do, or even whether we are performing the current activity well or badly..
5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness
We are aware of only what is relevant to the here and now – our consciousness is entirely in the present. You may become so immersed in your project that you aren’t even aware someone is standing in the doorway of your office.
6. There is no worry about failure
While we are in flow, we are too involved to be concerned with failure. It may feel like being in total control, but in fact we have no awareness of control – the issue does not even arise.
7. Self-consciousness disappears
In everyday life, most of us spend a lot of time monitoring how we appear to other people, and whether we are making a good impression. In flow, we are too concerned with the activity itself to care about this.
8. Our sense of time becomes distorted
We forget about time, and hours may pass like minutes. Or the opposite: a skater may execute a turn that in reality takes a second or two, but to her it seems like 10 or 20 seconds. In other words, clock time and experienced time are no longer the same.
9. The activity becomes autotelic
This is a Greek word which means something that is an end in itself. In flow experiences, there is generally a sense of doing the activity purely for the experience it provides, even though there may be larger goals as well (like earning a living!)
The direct relationship between flow and work is complex – Csikszentmihalyi found that most people experienced more flow at work than in the rest of their lives, but he also found that many workplaces were set up to make flow very difficult to reach or sustain.
What is clear is that we will be well on the way to a satisfying life if we learn to get flow from as many of our daily activities as possible, in or out of work. The easiest way to do this is to use our strengths as often as we can.
And for more on flow, check out Csikszentmihalyi’s excellent TED talk. Well worth 18 minutes.